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Here’s how to develop your own heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and more

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: January 24, 2019
  • Published January 24, 2019

Detroit Dark Red Beets at the Heritage Garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden on Thursday, June 25, 2015. The Heritage Garden, part of the Anchorage Centennial celebrations, features heirloom plants that were planted in early Alaska gardens.

I emphasize growing open pollinated tomatoes with the hope that some of us will develop unique Alaska heirlooms. This is accomplished using these non-hybrid plants, collecting seed from the best and then repeating the process until something really special develops -- say, better cold tolerance.

Being able to develop an heirloom adds an interesting angle to our hobby. Of course, there is no reason why we need to limit ourselves to tomatoes. All manner of vegetables can be found in open pollinated form, ready to be “heirloomed” by Alaska gardeners.

More and more companies recognize the benefit of heirlooms and offer them. Not to push Baker Creek Seeds ( too often, but everything in their catalog is heirloom. Check out a company called Heirloom Seeds, which has more than 1,400 listings.

How about some of our cole crops? We grow lots of them, why not get something distinctly Alaskan going? The Seed Saver Exchange ( is full of heirlooms. Try kale, for example. And, if you want information on kale seed collection and preservation, The Homestead Lady is a place to go.

Peppers come in all manner of heirloom varieties. You can learn all you need about developing heirloom peppers (and other heirlooms as well) at Mother Earth News. Develop that special hot one! Johnny’s Selected Seed might be a place to start, as it specializes in short-season crops, which we need to start with.

That same Mother Earth News site has a great article on heirloom potatoes. The rule here is to not order from the Lower 48 states, as we have all the stock we need to develop, and it is disease-free stock we don’t want to pollute.

Who knew there were heirloom carrots? How to tell? If a carrot is a hybrid, it is usually indicated in its name. Of course, the question is, how do you get seeds from a biennial?

Carrots seed after the second year of growth. So, if you want an heirloom carrot, you have to dig up breeding stock, store it over the winter, and then replant it in the spring, as it will flower in its second year. When you plant in the spring, just make sure the carrots you saved are planted very close together. This will help induce flowering.

You can develop heirloom flowers, too. Sweat peas come to mind. There are lots and lots of open pollinated varieties. Imagine a special, fragrant, Alaska sweat pea. You know me, I like to get my sweat peas from Renee’s Garden Seeds, but Eden Brothers has a nice selection of all heirlooms.

I don’t often write about gourds because they require warm soil to germinate. and the longer the season, the better. They also need a lot of room.

Ah, but developing heirlooms is all about breeding to meet your local needs. Sand Hill Preservation Center has more than 40 different heirloom gourds. Surely there are some worthy of Alaska efforts.

Lettuces are also a good heirloom crop for Alaska because our cooler climate limits bolting and keeps the crops from becoming too bitter. Annie’s has all the types of lettuces we can grow in heirlooms.

There are those who insist that hybrids are really the best plants to grow. Often, that can be the case. They are generally disease-resistant, something one might have to develop in heirlooms, and other problems have been bored out of them.

Still, we have such a unique set of growing conditions here in Alaska, and breeding adds such a depth to our hobby that simply growing heirlooms is surely worth it. Breeding them is, too. Perhaps we need to set up some sort of Alaska Heirloom seed exchange at the various Alaska botanical gardens to accelerate the pace?

Alaska garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: Join. Simple as that.

And, note that this year you can have your own garden bed at The Garden with guided help from the experts. Check this new offering on their website.

Pelargoniums: Those grown indoors this winter need shaping for this summer. Save and root cuttings.

Check stored plants: Bulbs? They may need to come out into the light if they have been stored for 12 weeks.

Alaska Peony Growers Association, 2019 Winter Conference: Jan. 24-27, Land’s End Resort, Homer.

The Growers School will precede the conference. Post conference classes to follow. Details and registration